Alternating between 1943 and 1955, Bohjalian crafts a mystery, historical fiction and psychological thriller in his book, The Light in the Ruins. Interspersed with those chapters is a narrator's viewpoint on the murders he has committed and is about to commit.
Outside of Florence, there is, what once was a bucolic Tuscan villa - Villa Chimera. Owned by the Marchese and Marchesa Rosati, it is a sanctuary for their family from the horrific brutality of the war. Living with Antonio and Beatrice is their daughter, Christina, and daughter-in-law Francesca and her two children Their son, Vittore works in Florence at the Uffizi and their other son, Marco, Francesca's husband is serving in the Italian army. Life in the villa changes drastically one day when Nazi soldiers arrive wanting to see the caves of earlier Etruscan burial grounds. The soldiers subsequently occupy the villa for an outpost and Christina becomes romantically involved with one
In 1955 Serafina Bettini is working as a homicide detective in Florence when she is called to investigate the chilling murder of Francesca Rosati. The body is discovered in her apartment with her heart cut out. As the investigation continues, the reader begins to learn more about Serafina and her involvement in the war. She has suffered brutal wounds that have left her scarred and without a portion of her ear.
As the narrative moves back and forth between the time periods and through flashbacks in the minds of the main characters, the connections between the characters begin to be elucidated. The serial killer's narration reveals that his/her revenge will be taken on the Rosatis, one by one.
The Light in the Ruins is another example of the masterful and powerful storytelling of Chris Bohjalian. It is gruesome, to be sure, but is also a gripping chronicle of the war in Italy. The struggle between citizens, the Partisans, and the Nazis shows the multi-faceted effects of a conflict. How does one balance doing what is right when it comes to saving one's family? Its strength lies in historical and political analysis. The revelation of the serial killer is a bit of a shock with so many possibilities - a man, woman, Italian, Nazi, an acquaintance or one who needs to exact revenge on the rich landholders? The meaning behind the title of the book is illuminated at the end, much as the dock light in Gatsby does for that novel. Bohjalian needs to be on the list of "must read" authors.